Angelique Harris on “Emotions, Feelings, and Social Change”

Dr. Angelique Harris is the founding director of the Center for Gender and Sexualities Studies and the Gender and Sexualities Studies Program and is an associate professor of sociology  in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University. Her research examines social problems and issues within marginalized communities, primarily focusing on the experiences of women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities. Her research and teaching interests include the sociology of religion, urban studies, media studies, and social movements. Dr. Harris recently shared her thoughts on her article, “Emotions, Feelings, and Social Change: Love, Anger, and Solidarity in Black Women’s AIDS Activism” from an issue of Women, Gender, and Families of Color.

While conducting research on Black Church responses to HIV/AIDS in New York City, I noticing that a vast majority of those involved in Black Church AIDS activism were black women. For a number of reasons, such as the high rates of religiosity among black women and the high rates of HIV/AIDS, their activism efforts were not necessarily a surprise. However, I was taken aback by how the women discussed their activism work and emphasized that it an important part of their identity. Wanting to explore this more, I decided to focus specifically on AIDS activism among Black women in the United States.

Initially, for this project, I used black feminist theory, and its focus on intersecting identities and community empowerment, as the theoretical framework that helped guide the project. However, I quickly realized that black feminism was not necessarily the appropriate lens through which to examine their activism work as the initial data clearly emphasized a number of other factors that influenced the activism efforts of these women, such as notions of identity and spirituality. I then turned to womanism.

Like black feminism and feminism, womanism focuses on oppression and social change for women. Like black feminism, womanism focuses on the impact that intersecting identities have on the lives and experiences of women of color. However, unlike feminism and black feminism, womanism is a woman of color perspective and framework that focuses specifically on social change, agency, and activism. Womanism not only takes into account intersectionality and social justice, but it also takes into account the fact that women and oppressed people will work to change their social conditions. As such, I found it to be a more appropriate framework to examine activism among black women. Throughout the interviews the emotional language the women used stood out and became the focus of this paper.

If the motivations of black women’s activism remain understudied, their emotions are entirely overlooked. In 1981, the influential black feminist activist and scholar, Audre Lorde talked about the “uses of anger” in her speech at the National Women Studies Association. Lorde explained how anger is used to motivate people to enact change. Although the “angry” black woman is a stereotype we often hear about in the media and on television, or even for some of us, in our every day lives, how anger can be used goes unnoticed. The findings of this study show that emotions do, indeed, influence activism among black women and how it is not simply anger, but rather anger fueled by love and feelings of solidarity that motivate activism among women in the study. This paper explores the emotions that motivate the activism efforts of a sample of women and emphasize that emotions are at the core of activism work.

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